The Bookshop: one-dimensional characters and a pedestrian plot in a kitsch provincial English setting

Isabel Coixet, “The Bookshop” (2017)

Directed by a Catalan-Spanish director, this film exudes provincial English kitsch in its setting, its stereotyped and sometimes frosty characters, and its plot which often jumps ahead of itself and features some unexpected twists and turns. The film appears to be quite faithful to the source novel by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) fulfills a long-held dream to open her own bookshop in the seaside village of Hardborough in Suffolk. The bookshop is located in a historic building known as The Old House (after which the bookshop is named) which had previously been idle for several years due to apparent problems with damp and a supposed ghost infestation. After overcoming various obstacles – one of which is local wealthy socialite Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) who desires to open an arts centre in The Old House – Green finally starts her business. Employing 13-year-old schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey) in the weekday afternoons and Saturdays, Green makes quite a splash among the villagers, especially as she stocks eyebrow raisers like Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and the recently released “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. Reclusive Edward Brundish (Bill Nighy), living at the top of a hill, becomes Green’s best customer and friend who starts inviting her for afternoon tea on a regular basis.

After some months, a rival bookshop opens in a former fish-and-chips shop and school inspectors pull Christine away Green’s employ for being under-age. From this point on, Green’s business starts to suffer, especially after Green takes on local louche layabout Milo North (James Lance) as assistant. The film hints that North may be colluding with Mrs Gamart to evict Green and seize The Old House building. Meanwhile Mrs Gamart’s nephew, a politician, sponsors a bill that enables local councils to¬†buy historical buildings that have not been inhabited for more than five years. The bill passes and the council that governs Hardborough buys out Green and she is forced to leave the village.

While the acting is very good if restrained, few characters have much to do and the plot is very pedestrian. Characters are one-dimensional and viewers are hard put to decide why Green should have chosen a place like Hardborough to set up her shop as there is little distinctive about the postcard-pretty village or its inhabitants. An opportunity for Coixet to show how parochial or hostile the villagers might have been towards Green initially, then perhaps slowly to defend her against Mrs Gamart’s machinations as they realise that Green’s bookshop is the only business that makes their village stand out from all the other seaside villages in Suffolk, that could have given the film and its characters more spine, is missed. A later twist in which Green discovers that the later admiration from the villagers for her courage and stubborn resistance and then support, then collapses when Mrs Gamart persuades some, maybe most, of the villagers to betray her, could have been the film’s climax after which (spoiler alert) Green finally admits defeat and leaves Hardborough.

After nearly a year of running her bookshop, Green appears not to understand Hardborough and its people no more than she first did when she came to the place, and while viewers get plenty of clues throughout the film that, for all her kindness, honesty and braveness, Green is ignorant of events occurring around her, still audiences will wonder how such a capable woman couldn’t have seen what was going on and tried to sound out people for news of Mrs Gamart’s machinations.

Ultimately what the film suggests is that courage, early success and the support of a few well-meaning people of integrity like Brundish are not enough against the combination of money, higher social standing, political connections and the indifference of a community, many of whose members may be jealous of Green. That a village might need a bookshop unfortunately is not the same as wanting a bookshop if its inhabitants are suspicious of reading and what it may represent: new ideas, change, a threat to their settled and predictable lives, the possibility that their world may be invaded and eventually absorbed into a bigger, more impersonal universe.

The English class system and the social hierarchy and attitudes it breeds in upper and lower classes alike could have had a bollocking here but Coixet chooses to ignore and avoid this particular proverbial elephant in the room. As a result the film feels small and not a little stale – in short, it feels much like the village it subtly criticises.